Journey into Tajikistan(part 1)

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When I was 25 years old I left the US for the first time to travel the world.  That journey lasted two years and spanned 50 countries.  The trip gave me many valuable skills and lessons and changed my life trajectory. Here’s a story from 15 years ago about the unique border crossing of Tajikistan, one of the most remote parts of the world.

Part 1 of a 2-part post

Time, patience, and a bit of luck got me to this obscure part of the globe.  Tajikistan was the most off-limits of the “Stans,” and getting a visa to this mysterious land was like finding enjoyment at the DMV.

I did a bit of research about Tajikistan from neighboring Uzbekistan and I found a few sentences in English online, “For the moment a trip to Tajikistan requires a good briefing on the political situation and as much help as you can get.  This is not the place for the casual traveler.” 

When the word Tajikistan came up in conversations in Tashkent the capital of Uzbekistan, Uzbeks cringed, pursed their lips and squinted their eyes in distress like the sound of the word alone caused physical pain.  Many of them thought Tajikistan was off limits, for only negative information reached beyond the border to the more “prosperous” Uzbekistan.  

My reasoning for pushing into this frontier is that it was just that, it was a frontier.  I was young, curious and adventurous; I wanted to go into the unknown. I had acquired some world experience and I was ready to go further down the rabbit hole.  Tajikistan checked all of the boxes.    

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I spent a sunny morning traveling south from Tashkent to the Tajik border.  The taxi driver stopped on side of the road for the staple Uzbek lunch of plav, (a bland mix of oily rice, vegetables, and raisins) and tea.  My stomach jostled around for grip.  After being poisoned a week earlier, I was finally coming around but my last bit of stomach bacteria was trying to throw one last punch before being officially knocked out.  

As with so many drivers in the former Soviet republics, jokes and banter emerge on long trips.  But when we got near the Tajik border the driver’s survival instincts kicked in, and he gave his best attempt at trying to squeeze a few more dollars out of me.  After my refusal, our relationship deteriorated; he dropped me off and left with a cold gaze.  The barren landscape added to the steely situation.  Desert mountains towered up in the distance and dust from the strong winds blew into my eyes.  

I walked through Uzbek customs and into a small shack housing the Tajik customs.  The crossing was easy, I was the only person going through.  Equipped with my bag in hand, and $1200 in twenty-dollar bills sitting in a money belt beneath my pants, I was ready.  

My immediate setting looked challenging.  A few dodgy-looking taxi drivers and some drunks stood with intimidating faces just beyond a parking lot.  There was nothing else around and no chance to construct a plan B.  

My only sense of security was a mother and her two children waiting for a ride; the presence of women and children always make a situation feel safer, even if it isn’t.       

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A policeman—half in uniform—stumbled out of a little shack behind the parking lot with an AK-47 over his right shoulder.  He walked towards me but not in a straight line coming within arms reach. His gaze looked right through me as he accosted my eyes and nose with pungent vodka kill on his breath.  At the same time, three shifty-looking drivers approached me. 

It was like they were waiting for me all along, or someone like me.  And while Tajikistan checked all of the boxes for me, I most likely checked all of the boxes for them: foreign, alone, in need of something, zero contacts, carrying money, no easy way out, etc.       

Every bit of my non-verbal communication gave a queue to them so I kept close attention to where my eyes looked, my shoulder posture, the direction of where my feet pointed, how my hands were positioned, etc. Like aggressive dogs, if I emanated fear they’d prey on it.  It was a primal moment where the security of my world relied completely on instincts and street smarts. 

I played it cool and acted like nothing was out of the ordinary, but inside I was buzzing with anxious energy.  I gazed casually out past the circus of characters in front of me to the treeless desert that seemed to spread on for an eternity until it crashed abruptly up against the high Fan Mountains.  The air was bone-dry, with a few clouds in the sky.  The temperature warm.  I thought about the reality I voluntarily put myself in and questioned it for a brief second.  

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The bunch inched forward and formed into a tight half circle in front of me.  I was under the spell of their obscure observation.  One of the drivers looked at me with one of his eyes closed, his large head tilted at a forty-five-degree angle like I was an endangered species in the zoo.  Another drunken man with a stumbling walk and flailing arms came our way.  The taxi driver twitched rapidly moving his fingers and blinking his eyes at a fast cadence like he was on some narcotic.  The tension mounted and at the very least I thought I’d be out some money.  

This awkward silence lasted for what seemed like an eternity.  This was one of those moments when the pendulum of my fate could have swung in either direction.  I was quick to learn that Tajikistan was one of those lands where it was possible for things to go really well or deteriorate quickly, especially in 2003.  

The mother and children who were watching all along came closer.  She had concern written all over her face and jumped in to save the situation.  “You come with us in taxi,” she said to me as her driver pulled up at that exact moment.  Dust kicked up into the air and distracted everybody.  The men were slow to react as they removed the dust from their drunken eyes.  The woman gave me a look that directly translated into, “get in the back of the car quickly this is your only chance.” 

I got into the taxi and we sped off.  I looked back through the rear window of the car at the men who turned around realizing their opportunity—whatever that might have been—was gone.    

We drove through a strange landscape that could have been from another planet.   A  larger than life  Soviet-era monument erected on the side of the road, breaking out of the dirt and rocks towering powerfully towards the heavens.  Big clouds gathered around the mountains, the skies turned dark blue, almost purple.  

Read Part 2 Here

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